Lessons for Fighting Terrorism from Pan Am Flight 103 and Muammar Qadhafi

David Tucker

April 1, 1999

On April 5, with their Governments agreement, two Libyan citizens surrendered to Dutch authorities to stand trial for their part in the mid-air terrorist bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland in 1988. According to the deal worked out between the United States, Great Britain and Libya, the suspects will be tried under Scottish law in the Netherlands. Legal proceedings and the trial itself may take more than two years. No one can predict the outcome but it is worth pausing now to consider what this unusual case can teach us about fighting terrorism.

First, the date of the Libyans’ surrender reminds us of the complicated and protracted way in which terrorism and the struggle against it plays out. On April 5, 1986, Libyan agents bombed a disco in Berlin frequented by Americans. This attack precipitated the American bombing raid on Libya a short time later. It was allegedly in response to this raid and other American actions that Libya’s leader, Muammar Qadhafi, ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103. Thirteen years after the bombing of the disco, events it helped set in motion are still slowly playing themselves out.

Second, as the list of actions and counteractions outlined above makes clear, we are at a disadvantage in a contest of force with terrorists or the states that sponsor them. We present many more vulnerable targets to the terrorists than the terrorists and their sponsors do to us. Our citizens travel and live around the world and the United States itself is a remarkably open society. Terrorists therefore have access to a staggering array of American targets and are prepared to attack them indiscriminately without regard to the dictates of law or morality. When the United States uses force, for example in the raid on Libya, it does so in accordance with international law, which limits the targets we can strike.

Third, since we are at disadvantage compared to terrorists when it comes to the use of force, we should use it sparingly to combat them. In the long run, we will do better if we emphasize other means. In the case of the bombing of the Pan Am jet over Scotland, we first used our unmatched intelligence and forensic capabilities to identify suspects. We then used diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, imposed unilaterally by us, as well as through the United Nations, to force their government to surrender them. On this playing field, neither terrorist organization nor state sponsor can match us.

Fourth, the campaign against Libyan sponsorship of terrorism that began in the mid-1970s, when we first imposed sanctions on Libya for sponsoring terrorism, appears to be reaching its final stages now. To escape the pain our sanctions and those we cajoled others into imposing, Qadafhi has apparently stopped sponsoring terrorism against the United States and its allies and has finally offered up his henchmen for trial. Thus for almost twenty-five years, through the administrations of both parties, we have done what most foreign policy experts said we could not do. We have been patient, accepted inconclusive results, suffered setbacks, but struggled on. Democracies are supposed to be too changeable to succeed at protracted strategies but we have succeeded.

Finally, we must remember that our success with Qadhafi does not put an end to terrorism. We will be attacked again by others. What worked against Libya, a country isolated by the eccentricities of its leader and enfeebled by his economic policies, may not work so well with others. We will have to remain as flexible and resilient in the future as we have been in the past when battling Qadhafi. But the struggle with Libya should impress upon us above all that although in a short violent exchange with terrorists we might lose, in the long run, we can win.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.